This review of Lilya 4-Ever is so ancient I have lost all record of where it was originally published. Would write this very differently now…
If Lukas Moodysson‘s previous film, Together (2000), showed how communal living can offer a shelter from the world’s disharmonies, then his new film Lilya 4-Ever portrays the very opposite: how the absence of community values leads to desolation and despair. Set ‘somewhere in what was once the Soviet Union’, in a bleak town with no future, the film follows the break-up of sixteen year old Lilya (Oksana Akinshina)’s family life, and her inevitable drift towards penury, prostitution and suicide.
Like the recent L.I.E. (2001), it begins near its end, with the protagonist poised on a bridge above an expressway, about to take her own life. Cut to three months earlier, and we see how she came to be there. Betrayed and abandoned by everyone around her – her selfish mother (Lyubov Agapova), her deceitful aunt Anna (Liliya Shinkaryova), and her best friend Natasha (Elina Benenson) – Lilya briefly enjoys a supportive relationship of equals with the younger Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky); but when the suave Andrei (Pavel Ponomaryov) comes along, promising a new life in Sweden, Lilya finds that she too is capable of betrayal, leaving Volodya, and the last traces of her innocence, behind.
The two main characters in this film both have a simple enough picture of paradise, which middle-class filmgoers would take for granted, but which proves all too impossible for these children to realise: Volodya imagines a heaven where he can play basketball all day (like any American kid), but finds in reality that such dreams can be cruelly punctured; and Lilya quite literally carries with her a picture of an angel holding the hand of a child, hoping to find the sort of unconditional love it depicts, but failing to recognise that she has in fact already found it until it is too late.
Both Akinshina and Bogucharsky convincingly portray the children’s desperation for a normal life, as they are wrenched before their time into very adult misery. The camerawork, much of it handheld, creates an atmosphere of documentary realism, and even the dream sequences have a tawdry, banal quality, suggesting the narrow scope of these characters’ horizons, limited as they are by circumstance. And in a scene coming quite late in the film, there is the most bitterly ironic use of product placement (of a McDonald’s ‘Happy Meal’) that you are ever likely to see.
Strap: Lukas Moodysson’s drama of innocence lost and love exploited is hard-hitting and relentlessly depressing.
© Anton Bitel